“It’s really not about shock!” insists Korean-born cellist and composer Okkyung Lee. “Sometimes it becomes like watching an athlete, saying”oh, so-and-so is playing so loud, so-and-so is so fast“. And that’s not what I’m doing. I’m not putting up a ‘show’.” We are sat at the back of London’s Café Oto, and I have just tentatively raised the subject of the language used in various reviews and blogs to describe Lee’s energetic and often abrasive music. Her recent solo release “Ghil”, captured on cheap antique microphones and tape recorders by artist Lasse Marhaug, has been compared to everything from a swarm of bees to a bomb going off, yet at the same time manages to slip through the net of improvised noise clichés into darker, less charted waters.
Whether her music is shocking or not, Lee has journeyed far from the strict Korean classical music regime into which she was inducted at the age of six, both geographically and musically. Wanting to get away from the confines of classicism, she enrolled at a Boston jazz school, where she’d heard they taught “non-classical” degree programmes. There was a problem, though: she didn’t know anything about jazz.
“I didn’t know who Miles Davis was,” she recounts. “So I had to kind of bullshit my way through. I’d hear people talking about certain names, and I’d just go to Tower Records and buy a whole bunch of CDs and try to listen to them. I didn’t like what I heard right away. It took me a while to get into it.”
Following a master’s degree at New England Conservatory, Lee moved to New York, where she found herself playing with established artists from across the spectrum of experimental music: Laurie Anderson, Carla Bozulich (Evangelista), John Butcher, Evan Parker, Axel Dörner, Thurston Moore, John Zorn, and many others. “At first it was mostly about developing and trying to expand my vocabulary,” she says. “In the last few years it became more sound-oriented, maybe. I’m a very traditional person when it comes down to making music. The vocabulary I use is maybe a little outside the ‘norm’, but then it’s really about paying attention to the sounds, and then also thinking about the structures, and to keep pushing myself in a way I want to go, somewhere that I haven’t gone to before. And hopefully while I’m doing it, it comes out as a piece of music that’s… really good, you know?”
Recently Lee has gravitated more towards solo work, bringing her relationship with her chosen instrument more to the fore. On this topic, she is adamant.
“I’m a cellist, I play cello, from the very beginning. I don’t play other instruments. I don’t play cello as if it’s guitar, I don’t do that. But I’m not trying to make it sound like ‘cello’, either. Everything I do on cello, I think it’s doable by anybody who knows how to play the cello. Maybe I just go a little further than most other people would do. But then by doing that there’s another world that comes in, and a sound palette, and that’s fun for me.”
The search for new and interesting sounds has led Lee in a number of unexpected directions — not only towards Western-dominated jazz and free improv, but also to the traditional songs of her native Korea. “It wasn’t something I always paid attention to,” she says of this music. “Only when I went to NEC, that’s when I started kind of paying attention to it. It’s not even like whether you ‘like’ it or not, but you just have it somewhere inside. I think that’s what Korean music was for me. Then later I realised actually I really looooove the singing, especially. And there was this record I heard of these traditional songs, sung by females, coming from way up in the north-east, near China, almost. The way they sing, the melodies, they’re quite different from what I grew up with — they’re really long, melismatic, and also very microtonal melodies. And I really was taken by it.”
“I think it’s natural to investigate what I have inside that defines who I am — not just as a Korean person, but as a person. So I have some kind of attachment to this [music], and then what is it? How do I want to incorporate that into my playing? Why do I want to do it? Is it something I already have, or something I’m trying to bring in, as an extra thing?”
Later that evening, as I watched Lee pummel and pound dense sheets of cacophony from a borrowed cello, I could well imagine how her intense performance style could be read in terms of shock and awe. Yet throughout our conversation I was aware of an agile and focused intelligence that now seemed transposed into a more physical mode, each bow stroke carving out a razor-sharp line of thought.
“It would be great if people could listen to my music without any preconceived notion of what it should be,” Lee suggests, “but then that’s also impossible, not to have any kind of idea what you’re getting into.” Her own history suggests otherwise: it’s how she learned who Miles Davis was, for a start. The most perceptive review I’ve read of “Ghil”, published on the website Search and Restore, was authored by a 4-year-old girl called Eva. “I feel like it’s going to rain / I don’t know how I feel”, she asserts as she listens, and her words open up a space that encapsulates both sounding-like and not-sounding-like, thought and feeling and perception held together without worrying too much about the contradictions. In this space, Lee’s cello crackles and hums.